Defensive Blueprint: Part One

Optimism abounds when discussing the 2008 Irish offense. There are questions, sure, but there appears to be much more confidence about how those questions will be answered and who will do the answering. When talking about the 2008 Notre Dame defense the questions far outnumber the answers.

Will Notre Dame still stick to the "3-4 personnel" that Corwin Brown brought with him? Will Notre Dame go back to a 4-3 type defense that Jon Tenuta has run during his days as a coordinator? Who is going to replace Trevor Laws and be a force up front? Is Brian Smith going to be playing inside or outside? Is Kerry Neal going to play with predominantly with his hand down, his hand up, or a blend of both? Which freshmen are going to step in and provide depth? Who is going to replace the recently departed Darrin Walls? What kind of impact will Jon Tenuta make with the linebackers, with the defensive scheme, and with the blitz package Notre Dame will implement. Those are the main questions in my view. There are more, but I didn't write an entire article just asking questions. Hopefully I can try to answer some of them. The remainder won't be answered until the Irish take the field in September and throughout the season.

I am somewhat nervous about the 2008 Notre Dame defense. I don't think the players are bad, and I think the coaches on the defensive staff are bright and talented. But with so much uncertainty I can't be nearly as confident about how things will turn out as I am about the offense. There are reasons to be optimistic about the potential for the Irish defense. Take away the two option-oriented academies and I felt the defense was relatively well prepared and well coached. It took some time to get the hang of the new schemes and techniques, but the defensive unit showed improvement as the season wore on. Despite having an offense that couldn't move the chains, keep the defense off the field, or score points the Irish defense was able to keep Notre Dame in the majority of games over the second half of the season. The defense won the UCLA game.

First I will discuss some of the schematic and strategic issues I think need to change or improve. To be quite honest this discussion will be brief, as I'm still uncertain about what defense the Irish will actually be running in 2008. Finally I want to discuss the personnel on defense and who needs to improve or emerge in order to make this defense effective.

STRATEGY/SCHEMES

BASE DEFENSE

There has been much debate lately over what defense Notre Dame will indeed run this fall. After going back and watching some of the 2007 defense and watching this past spring game I believe we'll see changes to the Irish defense in 2008. When the Irish are in their base defense I saw similar five man alignments we saw last fall. The change is now the weak-side edge player has his hand on the ground. It's my understanding that player is still considered an outside linebacker, but he aligns and plays like a defensive end. The basic alignment out of this defense is an "under" look, which is a bit different. There were always four players in a three point stance. This is a new wrinkle. I also saw less pure nose alignments out of the nose guard. More often than not the nose guard was in a shade to the strong side.

When the Irish went "nickel" they lined up in a four man front with two inside linebackers. They nickel back was either a cornerback in more pure passing situations or a safety when it's not an obvious passing down. Out of this defense the Irish had the safety working close to the line of scrimmage. The Irish didn't run this often in 2007 but we did see it at times. Here is one thing to watch for. If the Irish linebackers, mainly the inside guys, don't step up this fall we could see a lot more of this defense. With athletes like Harrison Smith (6'2, 215), Sergio Brown (6'1, 197), and Ray Herring (5'10, 200) we might see the Irish use more "nickel" formations. Smith, Brown, and Herring are all big enough and physical enough to play the run in any down and distance. If the front four can hold its own it makes it even likelier.

The biggest changes I saw were schematic. The Irish appeared to do quite a bit more stunting, twisting, and blitzing out of their looks. This is a welcome sign. When they moved up front they were able to make plays. When the Irish didn't get movement up front they got driven back. The blitzes were aggressive but it appeared the players were still getting used to their assignments in the blitz. Too often the blitzes opened up cut back lanes on the defense with gaps left uncovered or players over-pursuing. I'd expect to see the secondary line up with a "2 high" safety look as their base defense. I believe this look gives them their greatest advantage. Out of this look the Irish can play all their Cover 2 defenses. But they can also get creative with how they get their safeties involved in the run game and robbing the underneath zones.

BE MORE AGGRESSIVE

I don't believe the Irish are at the point where they can play a 2 gap defense. They don't have the players. Notre Dame is still a relatively undersized defensive front for that scheme. While Notre Dame attempted to use the 2 gap defense early on by the end of the season it was all but gone. The Irish need to utilize their quickness over their opponents. In the spring I saw more stunting, twisting, and blitzing than I saw most of last season. This is the only chance the Irish have up front. The coaches must come up with sound schemes but also schemes that will put pressure on the opposing lines. They can do this by blitzing more (run and pass), being more aggressive with their twisting and stunting, and shooting the gaps with more authority and quickness. The downside of this is that if the Irish players don't get good jumps or make a mistake on their assignment the outcome can be a huge play for the opposition. While Tenuta's defenses at Georgia Tech were ranked high each season they were always good for a couple games a year where opponents would just gash them and put up huge rushing numbers. That's the risk you run with an overly aggressive defense.

In this defense, however, you can't twist, stunt, and blitz on every down. There will be times when the Irish front will need to anchor. Last season the Irish front got pushed back and knocked around far too often when attempting to anchor and control the line straight up. This is a big concern for the Irish defense. Will they be able to stand firm and anchor better against hard charging and physical offensive lines. If they can anchor better their production against the run will be better. The other thing the front players must do is take on double teams much better. They simply get blown back by double teams far too often. They don't have to split the double team every snap, but they do have to do a much better job of holding their ground against a double team and making it harder for the offensive linemen to get a push and make them work harder on him. This keeps them from getting quickly up to the second level linebackers.

I'm sure with two minds like Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta the Irish will be able to come up with some blitz packages that dazzle opponents and put pressure on quarterbacks. But it's risky business to blitz, and the more you do it the better the odds you get hurt. Where do you think the expression "Live by the blitz, die by the blitz" came from. That puts pressure on the front four to be able to create pressure on their own. Kerry Neal and Morrice Richardson are the first two pieces to solving this puzzle. Both players have outstanding quickness, and Neal also has outstanding pure speed. But he needs to really refine his pass rush moves and can't just rely on speed if he wants to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Richardson uses good initial quickness with outstanding strength to pressure the backfield. During the spring he came free on at least two separate occasions on a simple twist. He was so quick inside that the line didn't have time to adjust to him. But like Neal he is still raw when it comes to pass rush moves. The interior is also important. While Trevor Laws only racked up four sacks last fall he was quite disruptive inside. The interior players need to use their quickness, strength, and hustle to collapse the pocket and send opposing quarterbacks out into the waiting hands of the outside rushers.

BE SOUND, BUT BE DIVERSE

On defense you don't have to run a thousand different packages to confuse opponents. I'm of the belief that the more sound and more condensed your defense is the better. Now the trick is whether or not you can be effective with such a package. At this point the Irish don't have the overall talent to rely on just better players making plays. So there will have to be some diversity to what the Irish coaches do. They will have to get creative with their pressure packages while maintaining enough discipline to prevent giving up big plays. They will have to be aggressive enough in their run blitzes, twists, and stunts to use their athleticism to slow down the run game; all the while maintaining sound responsibilities that don't risk players being out of position and giving up big runs. There is a fine line between aggressively applying pressure and being unsound in what you do. Notre Dame needs to be dangerously close to that point without going past it.

Where the Irish can be quite diverse is how they line up. While the Irish still lack premier talent and depth they do have outstanding versatility. Take Brian Smith for example. He's a guy who can line up at defensive end and rush the quarterback, he can line up as a pure outside linebacker, and he play line up at inside linebacker. He's good against the run and is pretty good in coverage. He can be lined up in all over the place. Harrison Smith has the speed, athletic ability, and instincts that in time he could be a dominating free safety. But he has the size, strength, and hitting ability to play some linebacker. That's a great weapon to have. Kerry Neal is another player who can line up with his hand down or off the ball. Pat Kuntz can play on the edge and inside. David Bruton is a rangy free safety in coverage but also aggressive enough to come up and play the run. He is interchangeable at safety. There are countless options for the Irish coaches when it comes to how they line up. The trick for them will be creating enough diversity in looks, personnel groupings, and pre-snap alignments while maintaining sound schemes and not overwhelming their players mentally. Achieving this will make this defense better, quite a bit better.

STOP THE RUN

It all starts up front. If the front performs better they inside linebackers will more free to roam. If the inside linebackers perform better the safeties don't have to be as involved. David Bruton and Tom Zbikowski accounted for 165 tackles last fall. That's too many. But last year they needed to be in on tackles because the front seven couldn't slow down opposing run games without the extra defender in the box.

Coach Brown and Coach Tenuta need to come up with ways to get penetration from the smaller, quicker linemen at their disposal. They need to be sound and effective with their run pressures. The defensive linemen need to hold up better and be strong. Coach Tenuta also needs to make sure his inside linebackers are better prepared and execute better than they did last fall. They need to play more aggressive, smarter, and be more instinctive this fall.

GET THE YOUNG PLAYERS READY

It's up to the Irish coaches to get the young players ready to play. Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, and Ian Williams played a lot of minutes last fall, and for the most part they played pretty well. They are veterans on this defense now, but they are still only sophomores. This fall they will be joined in the rotation by classmates Gary Gray, Harrison Smith, and possibly Emeka Nwankwo. That's a lot of youth. Then we get to the incoming freshmen. Notre Dame landed its best defensive class in over a decade. But how much will those players be ready to contribute? The more ready they are the better this defense will be. This is a football team that is still lacking depth in the front seven. At the very least the freshmen class will be counted on to provide depth.

This is where the Notre Dame defensive staff will really earn their money. If they are able to get the youngsters on the defense ready to play this fall they will greatly increase the potential of this defense. The more reps guys like Ethan Johnson, Brandon Newman, Sean Cwynar, or Hafis Williams can play the better it is for Pat Kuntz, Ian Williams, Justin Brown, and John Ryan. More snaps for the youngsters means fresher legs for the starters. The same thing goes for the outside with Darius Fleming coming on. Inside you have highly touted Steven Filer and Anthony McDonald.

It's asking too much for the freshman class to come in, make a huge splash, and lift this defense to new heights. It just isn't done that way. But getting these youngsters caught up as quickly as possible and into roles where they can provide support and depth makes everyone else around them better. If at least one of the freshman linemen can step up the way Ian Williams last fall it makes this defense a little better.


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